What if, after the Fall of Troy, Énée doesn't end up in Carthage, courting Didon, but washes up in a residential home for war victims suffering Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder instead? And there, in a nutshell, you have Dmitri Tcherniakov's sole idea for Part 2 of Les Troyens. Pier Luigi Pizzi's staging of Berlioz' epic opera inaugurated the Bastille – Opéra de Paris' breeze-block bunker – back in March 1990. Nearly 30 years on, Tcherniakov's new production, which suffered the high profile cancellations of Bryan Hymel and Elīna Garanča during rehearsals, desecrates Berlioz' masterpiece, meeting vociferous hostility at the curtain call.

<i>Les Troyens</i> © Vincent Pontet | Opéra national de Paris
Les Troyens
© Vincent Pontet | Opéra national de Paris

It's not all bad. Tcherniakov has some interesting ideas in Part 1. King Priam is a tinpot military dictator, a vain man of inaction. He and his “royal family” are cocooned in a wood-panelled stateroom, protected from the concrete ruins outside. The populace greet the end of the siege by waving flags and balloons, but there's an air of “Our business is rejoicing!” about their celebrations. A news ticker keeps us up to date with developments, and a tv crew interviews Cassandre, who reveals her dark premonitions. Flashback video footage – over which Tcherniakov dictates characters' thoughts – imply that Cassandre was abused by Priam as a child. Because Priam chooses Hector's son as Troy's heir rather than Ascagne, there's the suggestion that Énée is in league with the Greeks, leading to a coup that goes horribly wrong. In Tcherniakov's Troyens, we do get an immolation, but it's not Didon in Carthage. As Troy falls, Cassandre douses herself in paraffin and sets herself alight to avoid capture by the Greeks.

Michèle Losier, Brandon Jovanovich, Stéphanie d'Oustrac, Véronique Gens and Stéphane Degout © Vincent Pontet | Opéra national de Paris
Michèle Losier, Brandon Jovanovich, Stéphanie d'Oustrac, Véronique Gens and Stéphane Degout
© Vincent Pontet | Opéra national de Paris

But it all goes dreadfully awry in Carthage. Red-vested wardens guide the residents through a number of therapy and role-playing sessions, a world of yoga mats and table tennis. Ascagne does a quick recce before registering his reluctant father for treatment. “You are our queen!” they cry, taking one poor woman and giving her a paper crown, ruff and robe. She is chosen to play act the role of Didon. We are back in the world of Tcherniakov's dismal Carmen, seen in Aix-en-Provence. When characters are play acting, why should we care about them? Énée hears the voices of Priam and Cassandre in his head. “Didon” expires due to an overdose and, as the opera closes, the woman playing her also collapses. The End. Are we moved? No.

Stéphanie d'Oustrac (Cassandre) © Vincent Pontet | Opéra national de Paris
Stéphanie d'Oustrac (Cassandre)
© Vincent Pontet | Opéra national de Paris

Even minus the originally-cast Didon and Énée, Paris fields an impressive team, though let's not pretend it challenges the astonishing line-up in Strasbourg two seasons ago. Stéphanie d'Oustrac's wiry mezzo made for an impressive Cassandre. A compelling actress, well versed in Tcherniakov technique, she was easily the most rounded character on stage. Stéphane Degout was a dashing Chorèbe, his rich baritone pouring smoothly. Véronique Gens made her brief vocal mark as Hécube, but Paata Burchuladze's hollow bass (Priam) no longer cuts the mustard.

Cyrille Dubois (Iopas), Christian Van Horn (Narbal), Ekaterina Semenchuk (Didon) Aude Extrémo (Anna) © Vincent Pontet | Opéra national de Paris
Cyrille Dubois (Iopas), Christian Van Horn (Narbal), Ekaterina Semenchuk (Didon) Aude Extrémo (Anna)
© Vincent Pontet | Opéra national de Paris

Brandon Jovanovich sang the role of Énée with great success last autumn in Vienna. (Covent Garden should revive that McVicar staging.) Here, Jovanovich made a valiant attempt, but without the required heroic ring or the heady top notes for “Inutiles regrets”. Ekaterina Semenchuk was impressive as Didon, negotiating her French gingerly but singing with full, dark tone, a contrasting mezzo to d'Oustrac. As Iopas, Cyrille Dubois' honeyed tenor – and an on-stage harpist – made for a lovely “O blonde Cérès”. Michèle Losier was a sympathetic Ascagne, while Anna and Narbal, both wardens here, were warmly sung by Aude Extrémo and Christian Van Horn.

Philippe Jordan drew fine playing from the orchestra and the chorus yet again demonstrated great strength, meaning that – musically – this evening deserves a third star. But Tcherniakov's production, reducing the second half of Berlioz' operatic epic to little more than Circle Time therapy, is a poor way to mark the composer's anniversary year.

**111